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Enough Is Enough: When (and How) to Say No at Work

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

Sometimes, you need to turn down extra work.

  • It's important to be a team player, but it's also important to know your limitations.
  • Taking on too many projects or otherwise overwhelming yourself can lead to a decrease in productivity, and it's important to know how to say no if you're being overworked.
  • There are strategies you can master to say no to your boss or supervisor without seeming lazy or disrespectful.

When you're working for an employer you respect or pursuing a career you love, it can be difficult to turn down assignments or additional opportunities in the workplace. You want to make a good impression, but you can't do it all, no matter how much you might think otherwise.

"If you've taken on too much, your gut or your conscience sometimes will let you know," said Jay Cochran, a principal at Deloitte. "You'll realize your deliverables aren't at the level they might be if you had taken the time to reflect and delegate where appropriate."

While it's great to go above and beyond in business, there's a fine line between working hard and working yourself to the bone. Sometimes, you just need to say no.

Risks of taking on too much work

There are many risks of assuming too many responsibilities in the workplace, from excessive stress to burnout. Often, employees think they're just being "good workers" or setting themselves up for success, but the cost can be detrimental to their mental health.

Additionally, your performance will falter in other areas as you scramble to keep up, and you might even miss out on work that's better suited for your talents.

"By agreeing to too many responsibilities and projects, you then have to say no to other tasks that may be of a higher priority, other opportunities that are more strategic and, ultimately, more important," said Cochran. "If you're taking on too many items that are not strategic, you won't have the time and energy to do other things that are better for your career and for your mental health."

Knowing when you should say no is the easy part; actually doing it is another story. Here are a few tips to support you through it.

How to tactfully set your boundaries

Be honest.

Cochran advises telling your employer when you think you aren't a good fit for an opportunity. Good leaders always value honesty, and turning down an offer is always better than accepting it, then failing to deliver.

"Sometimes, you have to make these tough decisions to say no, and you need to be clear and crisp in saying, 'I don't think this is the best use of our company's time and talents right now,'" said Cochran.

Rather than offering a cold rejection, however, Cochran said you can recommend another colleague who you think might be a better choice.

Be strategic.

When asked to take on more work, think about the bigger picture: Will this benefit or hurt you and your company in the long run? If it will be a positive for both sides, pursue it; if not, turn it down to prevent issues in the future.

"I try to say no strategically so that I can make sure I'm doing the best job I can," said Cochran. "If saying no today means that I can be more effective later, and make better use of a client's time and of my time, then that's the better choice."

Be realistic.

Just because you have a minute to breathe doesn't mean you should fill it with more projects. You need to find a balance so you're providing only your best work while still keeping your interest piqued.

"There's always more work to be done, but taking on more work does not in turn make you more valuable to your organization," said Cochran. "Growing yourself, your team and your company, and having insightful recommendations are your most important contributions to success, and when you're not focused on that kind of success, you're not focused where you should be."

You know your limits – be realistic about them.

Be your own advocate.

At the end of the day, look out for yourself and your well-being. If you feel you're working too hard, even if it's not as much as your co-worker is working, speak with your employer about a more flexible arrangement.

"We're going to be working for 40 years, and you'll burn out if you don't make time for downtime," said Cochran. "So sometimes you have to sprint, but in the long run, you need downtime to hone your skills and be able to reflect on how you can perform better. Taking time away for reflection actually makes you more valuable."

Be firm.

Some people don't take no for an answer. If your employer or supervisor is pushing you to take on more than you can handle, it's important to hold your ground. Don't be aggressive or rude, but be persistent. If you say no but eventually relent, it will make it harder to resist saying yes in the future.

The truth is that most managers respect an employee who speaks their mind. As long as you aren't confrontational or seeking to avoid responsibility, most good employers will honor your requests if you are assertive.

Be willing to compromise.

Keep in mind that your boss isn’t required to honor your requests (unless he or she is asking you to do something that is outside your job description). You shouldn't agree to do something that is going to overwhelm you just to appease your employer. But it's important to understand your commitment.

If your supervisor asks you to work on a Saturday and you already have another responsibility, you should let them know. Offer to get your work done quickly or handle the extra workload at a different time. If you're willing to compromise, it's more likely that he or she will be willing to be flexible and allow you to better manage your own schedule. 

Know your worth.

It's important to keep supervisors from taking advantage of your work ethic. Part of their job is to get the most out of employees, and some may unknowingly overstep boundaries. Especially when they have a worker who displays a commitment to their job, they'll often seek to make the most out of that drive.

It's your job to let them know when they're going too far. Your work ethic has value to the company that employs you, and you should always take stock of that value. Overextending yourself can diminish this value if your work suffers. If you find a way to communicate this to your supervisor, it will be hard for them to disagree with the logic.

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